The Every Lawyer

Masters of Mediation

Episode Summary

*Content warning: This episode includes descriptions of war atrocities. Julia welcomes Christine Kilby from the CBA Dispute Resolution Section. Christine brings us interviews she did with four of the world’s absolute masters of mediation. They discuss making the professional move from litigator to mediator, peace building, melting angry warlords, rehabilitating child soldiers into their communities, women's role in peace-building, and the undeniable link between the local and the global.

Episode Notes

There are many reasons for lawyers and litigators to consider mediation as a career move. And there are born mediators who may not have a professional legal background at all. Our goal in this episode is twofold: to make the case for mediation as a viable alternative to our over-burdened court system and to explore the role mediation plays in peace-, community-, and capacity- building on both the local and global scale. Pro-tip for seasoned professionals: mediation can also provide some relief for the feeling of burnout that can come from years of working in the adversarial system.

Julia welcomes Christine Kilby from the CBA Dispute Resolution Section. Christine and Julia introduce us to masters of mediation: Joy Noonan, Esther Omam, Mina Vaish and Archana Medhekar. Sponsored by the CBA Dispute Resolution Section: "Alternative" Dispute Resolution has never been so mainstream. 

Further links:

Canadian Bar Association - Dispute Resolution (

Mina Vaish, LL.M | LinkedIn

Ottawa Dialogue - Research & Action

Archana Medhekar - Mediators Beyond Borders International

Reach Out NGO | Cameroon (

Esther Omam - Women Mediators across the Commonwealth

Esther Omam takes us on a deep dive into her work with Reach Out Cameroon during the Bakassi crisis on the border between Nigeria and Cameroon, and the Anglophone crisis in Cameroon's South West and North West Regions, still ongoing. For context: 

Bakassi conflict - Wikipedia

Anglophone Crisis - Wikipedia

Kilby Mediation

Episode Transcription

Masters of Mediation

[Start of recorded material 00:00:00]

Joy Noonan:     The number one skill, number one skill of a mediator is listening, really careful listening. And we all say it. Again, I am an Irish girl from PEI. I love to chat. And I used to keep a little card inside my binder when I started mediating, that just said, stop talking. Just stop talking. Listen. Number one skill, listen. Listen, listen, listen, to everyone. What is going on here? Listen.

VO:                   This is The Every Lawyer, presented by the Canadian Bar Association.

Esther Omam:  Wherever we find ourselves, be it in Cameroon, in Canada, or in other parts of the world, mediation should be considered as a tool for social change.

Mina Vaish:      I think we have to pivot our minds from using mediation almost exclusively as a legal tool, and more towards a community tool. A community tool, but also a skill that each and every one of us can learn. It’s not unique to the legal profession, it should be applied a little more broadly, in my opinion.

Archana Medhekar:    The conflict resolution, or dispute resolution, what we do in our justice system, is an art and science. It’s a combination of two. It’s not something – the framework is not rigid that we can’t be creative.

Joy:                   It also – it creates a space for the peace from the heart, the hurt, right, the need to be listened to. I often will say what people usually need is a really good listening to. 

Julia Tetrault-Provencher: A good listening to. I like it! Especially podcasts and their hosts! We always need a good listening to. Welcome to the Every Lawyer, I’m Julia Tetrault-Provencher. Today, I’m also a listener. Really just here to introduce you to Christine Kilby from the CBA Dispute Resolution Section, which is sponsoring this episode. Welcome Christine!

Christine Kilby: Thank you! 

Julia:                 What prompted today’s episode? I listened to the edit on the weekend and honestly, I adored it. I learned. I laughed. And it made me think a lot about peace and what it means exactly. And I especially have a soft spot for the part where Esther talks about the warlord saying ‘Mommy’ to her, but I will not say more because the story to get to that point is fascinating and I want our listeners to have the same surprise as me. But please tell us more about the podcast and how it comes to this.

Christine:          Thank you, Julia! I had such a wonderful time interviewing these amazing guests and getting to know them and their practice and their perspective and it really for me brought to life this idea that we study when we study constitutional law of Peace, Order, and Good Government and I think what you’ll hear with theses interviews is how mediation actually supports all of those goals and how all of them work together to create the foundations for peace in society and globally and this podcast really gave us a global perspective.

Julia:                 Yeah it very much does and I would like to know also how you found Joy, Archana, Mina and Esther?

Christine:          So, Archana and Mina were connections through Mediators Beyond Borders International, which is an organisation of precisely that: mediators working for peace around the world and I was connected to them through someone who is also a member who is located in Canada, Alicia Kuin, and I was introduced to Alica by one of our CBA Dispute Resolution Section Members, Afsana Gibson-Chowdry, so that was how we started there. We also met Esther that way and Joy Noonan is Canadian mediator who I know through the ADR Institute of Ontario and otherwise. So that was the wonderful collection of folks we were able to bring together for this episode.

Julia:                 Thank you so much for bringing those people to us as well so that we get to listen to them today. And I’d like to know from you, cause, I said what my feeling was after listening to it but you, when you did this recording, what stayed with you after doing this?

Christine:          I think two things really stayed with me and one of them you’ll hear me say in the episode which is the idea that we will never be free of conflict, that peace is a process, it’s not a journey to some end point. It’s just an ever-present tool to manage the inevitable conflict that comes up in human interactions and that stayed with me because it feels very, as I said in the recording I think, liberating. The other thing that stayed with was this idea of how when you work on peace, wether it’s peace in a lawsuit to settle the case or peace among co-workers which is something that I do, a lot in that field, or, you know, between warlords and the women they’re affecting with their violence, it starts with conversations, it starts with input from the people who are most affected and their thoughts about what is going to bring actual peace and order and I think it also has a lasting impact when it starts at the grassroots. One of the stories we weren’t able to include just because of time was something that Archana was a sharing about a study done in Liberia with former child soldiers and how they integrated these former child soldiers back into their communities and they did so working with the people on the ground, with the communities, getting consultations going to say, like, how are we actually going to do this? What are the concerns? And Archana’s story ends with someone standing up in that particular seminar where the study was presented and saying: “Yeah. I’m one of those former child soldiers, I’m a peace builder now.” Like, unreal. So, peace has legs maybe (laughs) is the take away.

Julia:                 I like that (laughs), I really like that. Well, thank you so much! So let’s get started. Up first we have Elizabeth 'Joy' Noonan. Joy is an accomplished lawyer who shifted her practice in 2007 to that of full time neutral and conflict resolution work. Joy has served on the Alternative Dispute Resolution, ADR, Institute of Ontario’s Board of Directors and continues to co-chair the ADR Institute of Canada’s Chartered Mediator assessment committee. Before that she was a senior partner at a national law firm, and after 20 years in ‘big law’:

Joy:                 I remember my long-suffering husband saying, okay, so just so I   understand, Joy, you have a plan? Well, I have a plan, you know? So do you have clients? No, I don’t have any clients. So you’re leaving the partnership, and you’re going to just – yeah, jump off the cliff.

I was a senior partner in a big national law firm for many years, and I think I had always been the – probably the country of Switzerland in the partnership itself. I was often the one called in to sort things out between partners, locally, and through the country from time to time. But myself, I always had this sneaky feeling that there was a better way. And anybody who’s listening, and I see you nodding too, any of us who have practised law for any period of time, we’ve done lots of trials, lots of hearings, we’ve lost cases we should have won, we’ve won cases where we’d go, well, that was interesting.

But there’s so much suffering that happens before you get to that point, and that’s only become exacerbated, I might add, over the last 20 years since I’ve been doing this, where the wait for court is really prolonged now, even worse than it was. But, you know, that brings me back to feeling there was a better way in my guts, and deciding that I would leave private practice and give this a go. And at the time, mediation was much less utilised, but I had a very strong sense that this was what I needed to do.

So when you start out, and again, anybody who’s doing neutral work knows, when you start out, you kind of have to feel around as to what is going to work. Initially I did lots of training, I did lots of investigation work, and I built up my mediation practice. Here I am, I guess, what, 16 years later, I think, I’ve lost track now, but many years later, and now I really just mediate and arbitrate. But that’s how it began. It really began with a feeling that we could do better, and I’m validated in that every single day we resolve a case. And it’s faster, it’s better, it’s cheaper. And now, especially with Zoom, and these virtual mediations, it’s so much cheaper, so we’re able to really cut through the long and painful process of litigation in many, many cases.

Christine:          That is a very succinct way of putting mediation in where I think it belongs in the landscape, which is – it’s sort of the better way, more efficient, and sometimes I think the more effective at addressing what actually is going on in a lawsuit.

Joy:                   It lets me as the neutral come in, and be that person, other than the lawyer, who gets to talk directly to a client, let them express their feelings, and brainstorm things together. Let them feel like they’re invested in the process, let them, as you know so well, help them co–create the solution to the problem.

Christine:          I like the way that you highlight – and I think this is important across the board – the way that mediation makes room for people to collaborate in their solutions, to have agency in deciding what they want to do to solve their problem. And I just wonder if you’ve seen that, or if you have any examples of how that’s worked out, maybe in a way that was unexpected even to you, or in a way that beyond the legal context kind of advanced some other priority or goal that may not have been achieved through legal means alone.

Joy:                   Well, you know, I have a great example, that – this is a couple of years ago now, and it was an in-person mediation. And I’ll always remember that it was a senior employee in, we’ll say, a health organisation, and the individual was I’m going to say probably over 65 at the time. You know, the lawsuit was an age discrimination-like lawsuit, dismissal. People in the organisation itself were surprised at the sort of vigour with which it was being litigated by the plaintiff. Because this individual, she was a female, was always so gentle, and so lovely, and they were really shocked at this reaction.

And what we found during the mediation process, so, you know, the back and forth, and back and forth, what really was needed to get this done was a luncheon. There needed to be a luncheon. I remember going into the employer room, and sitting down, saying, we need to have a luncheon, we need her to be able to invite the people she worked with, we need to send her off in the proper way. This is not the way to end, right, a 20–plus year career. And you hurt her, you took away her ability to make that call, so let’s give her the ability to create the proper exit.

So we then spent the next hour working on the, you know, what would the luncheon look like, she gave us the list of all the people she would like invited, and we resolved the case very sensibly, but with a luncheon. Imagine? Yeah. And it’s often – that’s just one example of, right, hundreds where, you know, smart counsel will quickly read that what’s needed some time is an apology. And not because legally the employer, for example, wasn’t entitled to do what the employer did, but just an apology for the way things all rolled out, or an apology for how things felt. All things that court can’t deliver.

Christine:          I think what I’m realising hearing from lawyers is they’re in a very difficult position in mediation, because effectively we’re asking them to do a job that is the opposite of their job. So their job is to advocate, to really be the cheerleader, to show the other side why they’re going to lose. But then they’re coming into a space where we’re actually asking them to suspend that discussion, and talk about why they might lose, and tell their client why it may be in their interests not to fight this case all the way through. And I wonder what you found helps you as the mediator, to work with counsel who have to live in those two worlds simultaneously.

Joy:                   That’s such a great question, Christine, and it’s so true. You know, we ask lawyers to be warriors, right, and then – and that’s their job. And then they come to mediation, and all of that’s supposed to be suspended, and suddenly they’re supposed to become expert negotiators. For me, I spend a lot of time with each room, but plaintiffs in particular – and I say that only because often defense organisations and, you know, it’s a little more clinical in that space, but to explain to the parties that the counsel are there to be their advocates, their champions, right? They are here to give you the best legal advice, and to fight, fight, fight.

And I’ve got another lawyer in the other room, equally talented, who’s going to be advocating, and fighting, and – to defend their client, or to support their client. It’s the other side of the story. And then I explained that my role is to be that middle, that really, people who know me will know I say this all the time, my client is the settlement. So each of you have an advocate, I’m here advocating for the neutral resolution, I’m here for the deal. And so I tell them I’m the one who’s going to push your lawyer around, I’m the one who’s going to test, you know, we should think about what the outcomes could be here, you know, we should look at the other side so that we’re very comfortable, whether we take this ultimate settlement or not, you’re comfortable that this is the right choice.

So I really tried, Christine, to recognise and applaud the counsel in their advocacy roles, and acknowledge that in each room, that’s their job. And explain to the parties that just for today only, we’re going to approach this differently. And I’m going to hassle everybody, and I’m going to nudge, nudge, nudge, push, push, push, charm, charm, charm, right, cajole, just to see whether there’s a possibility. And we’re going to make sure that at the end the parties get to make the decision, it’s their decision, but let’s find out what’s possible. And by doing that, I really try to acknowledge the lawyer’s dilemma, right? And I know it well. I mean I had myself done hundreds of mediations before I became a mediator. It’s a dilemma.

Julia:               Archana Medhekar and Mina Vaish. Both have twenty plus years experience as mediators in the Greater Toronto Area. Their professional mediation journey has taken them from litigation via mediation to international peacebuilding through their work with Mediators Beyond Borders.

Mina:                My name is Mina Vaish, and I’ve been a mediator for about 18 years in a full-time capacity. Started off in court-connected services here in Ontario, where I reside, and I am currently the manager of operations for a court-connected service that services Peel Region, and Dufferin Region. Peel, of course, is one of I would say Canada’s most diverse and populous regions, so there are a lot of challenges around managing the operational side of the court-connected service in the Brampton court location. But I think my passion is always the international work that [Archen 00:13:26] and I have spent the last I would say ten years sort of honing, and really diving into international peace mediation, mediation, collaborative processes, and other tools to advance peacebuilding.

Archana:           My here and now is right now I am in New York. I am excited to share that I’m attending the Commission on Status of Women at the United Nations headquarters. And that is something that my role as a lawyer and peacebuilder – and that is a journey – and I want to thank Mina for bringing me into this world of peacebuilding. So just to introduce myself, I am a lawyer, and my focus of practice is working on issues that impact women, children, and people with intersectional vulnerabilities adversely. I am a mediator, and I do family mediations primarily. And in that role, I see that how we can creatively problem solve.

And for our listeners, who would be primarily lawyers, I want to share a personal story that brought me from litigation to mediation. So after practising almost for 20 years hardcore litigation, I was feeling the burnout, literally. I give example that, you know, the battery cell, I could see the red ring at the bottom, and I needed the positivity. And that’s where I turned to mediation training. And I trained as a mediator, and I think being a lawyer mediator is definitely complementing and balancing my being as a professional. So I would really encourage people to think that these two things are not diagonally opposite. They can complement each other, they can really make it creative for you to use as a tool. And that was further extended to the world of peacebuilding.

Christine:          When we talk about mediation in maybe in an Ontario context, or Canadian legal context, I think a lot of people who practise law will have a certain idea of what that looks like. And I wonder if you have a different understanding of mediation, or a different experience with it, in an international context, or particularly a peace context. So maybe you can help us understand what are the – what do they look like, mediation here, mediation there, and how are they different and similar?

Mina:                I can start off. And I think it’s good that we actually define mediation, because I do believe there are different permutations and understanding of what actually mediation is. So I think it’s a good idea to talk about some of the principal elements. So at its core, mediation is a voluntary process on consent of the parties, where a neutral, impartial and independent facilitator assists the parties to come to a mutually agreeable resolution on a dispute or a conflict. And it is based on the principles of self-determination and informed consent. So some of the fundamental words in this definition, Christine, are of course voluntary, neutral, impartial, independent. But to me, one of the most important words is self-determination and informed consent.

So self-determination, meaning that the parties themselves have a say in the outcome, they craft their own solutions, they use their creativity to arise at a mutually agreeable resolution. And sometimes it doesn’t happen, but, you know, often it does. So all of those above sort of principles are really important for an effective mediation, but to distinguish that perhaps a little bit – and I think there are a lot of similarities to international peace mediation, but there are some differences, of course. So international peace mediation is a type of mediation where a mediator, or mediators, generally someone that is respected, and trusted, and trusted by the parties themselves, assists two or more sides to come to a peace agreement, or sets in place the steps to achieve that particular peace agreement. And it could start as simply as the negotiations around ceasefires, for example.

Christine:          What have you observed, in the work you’re doing, in the relationship between maybe the sort of grassroots work, and how it impacts on bigger policy around the world?

Mina:                Peacebuilding is – it’s a holistic intervention, and so its objective is to sort of build the nutrients, when we talk about the nutrients of positive peace, and the nutrients that support sustainable peace. So some of those nutrients are things that align with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, so gender equality, poverty elimination, human rights protection, access to justice, rule of law. So the UN architecture of peacebuilding actually defines it as an effort to assist countries and regions in their transition from war to peace, but also to reduce a country’s risk of lapsing or relapsing into conflict by strengthening national capacities for conflict management, and laying the foundations for sustainable peace and development.

So there’s your linkage. The linkage is sustainable peace in, you know, by our – some of our beliefs, really requires the access to conflict resolution tools such as mediation, but also national capacities in laying the foundations for sustainable peace. But in terms of relevance to Canada, we have to remember that peacebuilding is a dynamic process. It is ever-changing and ever-demanding. In fact it is a fallacy to assume peaceful societies such as Canada do not require investment in peacebuilding. Because it’s dynamic, it changes. There are environmental, social, political change, that can challenge peace anywhere in the world, and we have a responsibility to invest in sustainable peace ingredients, I would call them.

Christine:          We hear a lot of talk about the divisions in society, the polarities emerging in many different places around the world. And I just wonder, does the investment in capacity and in peacebuilding, both in a capacity level and an infrastructure level, is that the bulwark against that kind of division, or those negative forces?

Archana:           I think that’s an excellent question. We broadly say that mediation is peacebuilding. And we talk about people-centered justice, and local capacity-building, and creating a more peaceable world, at Mediators Beyond Borders. And at the core of it is, as you said, we are at a pivot point in our lives at this point in time. There is much progress on technology, which is – which has potential to connecting us, and ironically this is the time that we are most polarised. And the biggest challenge we have is how to bring these polarised people, or parties, or organisations, or nations, to come together and create something. And the question is, how can that happen, who will make it happen, and when is the right time?

And it is actually on us. This is the time, and we can make it happen. And for that, what we need to do is build each person’s capacity, irrespective of professional background, to pitch in their own way to peace. Peace doesn’t necessarily mean something, which we always said, there are two phases of peace. And there was a concept of positive peace, which was popularised by a peace theorist, Johan Galtung, and he’s just passed away. He was Norwegian mathematician, and he actually was the founder of conflict and peace studies. And he taught us that peace does not mean absence of war, peace does not mean absence of violence, or negative peace is known as absence of violence, or fear of violence.

So he coined the term positive peace, and that is the attitude. Positive peace is not just the goal, but institutions, structures, including the justice system, to create sustainable peace in the society. And he says that peace is not a goal, peace is a process. So positive peace is presence of justice, and that can happen in any sphere in the society. It could be the need for being trauma-informed. If that means the core of justice, we need to have that in the spaces where we are. So the positive peace or peacebuilding is a mentality. It’s not just a process, it’s not something temporary. We see that conflict exists everywhere right now at the peak, but we have seen that in human history we have always seen some or the other type of conflict.

So positive peace focuses on actions and interactions. And I think interaction part is what is making us really continue to be polarised, because we don’t have platforms where we can sit down, or facilitate the conversations, where people are not agreeable to each other’s points of view. And I think it is very simple. It involves acts of kindness by one person to the other. And basically one major part of this is teaching or educating people about helping individuals or groups to have meaningful conversation or dialogue. So I think that mediation has that quality of having the open dialogue, sometimes in order to transform, and to heal, if that is required.

Basically we have to think that people have capacity to learn. The parties in conflict have capacity to learn the position of the other party.

Whether they agree or not is a different story. But the concept of listening to the listener as a mediator is important for someone that Mina and I said, while mediating we are observing what’s happening between the parties as a dynamics, and our role is to balance the power dynamics. And that is true irrespective of whether it’s the regular mediation, two-party mediation, or multiparty conflicts peace mediation. So some of these things are based on just the human connection. I think mediation connects human beings with empathy, and that’s the wholeness of us being human. So it’s a very powerful process.

Christine:          I love what you said about listening to the listener. What does that mean? What does that look like in practice?

Archana:           Listening to the listener is basically being self-conscious as – or self-oriented as a mediator, because my role as a mediator is going to influence the parties. I bring power to the table, but my power should not influence them, because we strongly believe in people’s right to self-determination in mediation. So there is interesting ways of handling. And I think that was my biggest transition or transformation being a litigator to mediator, was something which, you know, we have to learn to break the compulsion to step in, or to solve people’s problems, or, you know, give them solution, saying that I understand this, I’m an expert, you know, this is the best way, this is – this should work for you and your family, or your organisation, or your country.

And I think we have to break that compulsion, and allow that space for the parties to listen to what’s happening, listen to their body language, listen to the power dynamics that’s playing out. And there is always power dynamics. We have to be the ones creating the safe space, and making sure that we allow people and empower them through our process to find their own solution. Because it’s very easy for us to say, I’m an expert, I’m trained person, and I know what’s good for you. And those things we see in litigation, that sometimes when there is only one party who would have a buy-in in a court order, the other party who is not satisfied keeps on coming back to the court.

And that’s why we want to have a process, and there could be always a mix-and-match, that we can stop being a hinderance, and help people to empower to come up with their own decision-making. And how do we do that is by listening to the listener. What one party says, how is it impacting the other? And that’s my role as a mediator, to make sure that I don’t say okay, let me help you, this is the good thing. And at that point in time, I think helping becomes real hindrance. So we have to be very mindful and conscious that our role is that of a facilitator. I believe that we are not the bystander neutrals in mediation.

My mediation guru, and the founder of Mediators Beyond Borders International, he has coined a fascinating term called omni-partial. And that term means I am on the side of every party, whoever is involved – whoever is at my – in my process. It’s not that I would support one party or the other and then be seen biased. If I see someone is weaker at that moment, I will put my weight into that party’s side so that it becomes an equitable process, if I could say that. So that fascinating term liberated my soul in mediation, because we are not just looking at the dynamics playing out, maybe one party dominating the other. So listening to listener has so many connotations, but in practice, it would mean that we create a safe space, empower the parties, for self-determination.

Christine:          There – I’ve heard you talk about, together, the idea that sustainable peace is a really critical concept, right, to prevent relapse. And you’ve talked about how peace – positive peace is not the absence of conflict, because that – it’s peace process, right? There will always be conflict. Which I find personally very liberating as an idea, right, that we’re not trying to get to some endpoint. There is no endpoint. Where there are people, there are conflicts. And so the question becomes, how do we manage them? And so it sounds to me like you have – and again, I’m thinking about your levels, right? You have international players that face each other in certain places, and in certain ways, and they have tools and agreements about how they want to do things. And then you have within countries, the way people do things.

And so I wonder, as you are developing capacity, as you are building that kind of positive peace infrastructure, it seems to me, Mina, you talked about people having skills that come from mediation, that there’s a couple of different levels of capacity, where there’s like an institutional kind of structural piece that we can develop in a province, or a city, or a village, and then there’s like people’s actual own skills in managing conflict. And to, you know, go back to what Archen was saying, to be able to hear each other. Maybe they don’t agree, but to hear each other. So I just wonder, how does that look on the ground, maybe from the work you’re doing? What have you borrowed from the international framework, or from international peacebuilding, to build capacity more locally and individually?


Mina:                I love the metaphor of water when I’m, you know, when I’m teaching my classes and whatnot. So when you – Christine, you asked a question before about how does the global and local kind of link. I always use this metaphor, and I love it because it really sort of trains your mind to think. You know, when we talk about water and precipitation, it falls from a high level to a low level. It falls from the sky, and it comes down to earth. But there’s also – so that I would call – what I call a top-down impact of various peacebuilding initiatives, from global to local. But there’s also the second part of the water cycle, and that is evaporation and condensation.

So that’s from bottom up in that you’ve got, you know, these – what’s percolating on the ground will affect what happens globally. And as we know, clouds merge. There are no borders for clouds. So they move forward, they move to another jurisdiction, another country, and they may fall somewhere else. That precipitation may fall in another country. So what we’re doing locally in Canada when we talk about some of the ingredients that build peace, rule of law, access to justice, gender equality, you know, mediation as a tool, and yes, nations must invest more in peacebuilding tools. We see a lot of investment in war, and conflict, and military. We don’t see enough in peacebuilding. So what we do in Canada locally will affect what happens globally, and vice versa, what is happening globally will impact and affect us locally.

Julia:               Esther Omam started out mediating already as a young girl, first between her family members and then between couples she met in church. In May of 2019 she addressed the UN Security Council in New York on the Humanitarian Crisis in Cameroon and the impact it has had on Women, Children, Health and Humanitarian Access. As Executive Director of Reach Out Cameroon, Esther has been at the forefront of mediation and development issues in the South West Region of Cameroon since 2000, coordinating humanitarian activities in the South West and North West Regions and supporting more than 350,000 Internally Displaced Persons, including those in hard to reach communities in both regions. A “Natural Born Mediator’. She’s awesome, you’re going to love her.


Esther:              Yes, I will not call the parties for this current conflict, or I will not give names. And one of this man who is so dreaded in the communities, many people feared him so much for his fierceness, brutality and all, nobody will want to talk to him for fear of been killed by him. People were so much afraid, I asked about him, I said, how do I get closer to this man to talk to him? What will I do? And then I asked one or two people confidentially, whom I knew I could trust – because if this filtered out and he get it, it will get me killed. So they said, ‘we were not there’... Because where he is, he’s already seen you. Some people already believe in some kind of supernatural powers, so they said, we will not give you the number, because if we talk to you, he will hear us.

And I say, after explaining to them, I said no, he will not. Where he is, he will not. It’s just because of, you know, the aura he surrounded himself with, which is that of fierceness, and so on, which makes people believe that he has supernatural powers. But please, you just give me the contact. And they say, are you sure? I say yes. They say, okay, I will not give you – another person who will give you the contact. And I spoke to that person in all humility and modesty, and the person respected me and said, okay, I will give you the number. And so he passed the number. Before passing the number, he made a tripartite call, spoke to the guy, and then said, I’m passing you to one whom we consider a respected mother to us.

And I spoke with him in all calmness, you know, using the soft touch of women, bringing the motherly aspect to it. And so he was listening, and at some point I heard him say, Mommy, Mommy, I hear you. Mommy, one day, one day, I will see you, because you are really a mother. Thank you, Mommy. But you know, we will not stop and I said , never say never again, because the unpredictable can happen. And they said, how will I see you one day? When everything is over, I will look for you. Because the way you touched me in a special way made me think about my mother. So you see, this is somebody who is considered dreaded, and people would not want to talk to him. People believed that he had supernatural powers. But I could break through that wall, and speak to him in a calmer way, you know, and making him to feel loved, and making him to be my point of concern of interest.

And so this made him to succumb, you know, to also break the glass wall around him, come down his high pedestal, and address me like an ordinary human being. What brought me into mediation, I will say it’s a calling, it’s a vocation. I didn’t prepare for this. In my early childhood age I discovered myself mediating conflicts, disagreements, within the family, as young as I was. I remember this instance where my eldest sister got married to somebody my husband – my late father, sorry, considered as not responsible, and he chased my elder sister out of the house. I had to step in with my little voice, talk to my dad, and he was always listening to me, talk to him, make him see reason, to accept my sister.

At some point he slapped her before sending her out of the house. And so when I cried, and I spoke to him, he understood, and he said, it’s okay, you can go and bring her. I remember travelling to go look for my sister, spoke to her, and then she came and they reconciled. First of all, you know, the patriarchal nature of our families in Africa, in Cameroon specifically, which does not allow the girl child, you know, to take pre-eminence over the male child. But my father had a special love for me, I don’t know, maybe because he saw that gift in me, which was I always sympathised – empathised with people. I will always take people’s cases on me as if I was the one, you know, who was that victim.

And so this is how it went, and most people in church and beyond understood that I will always be impartial. In all what I’m called to do, I would never take sides, but I would see – I would make people see reason, and I would make them communicate clearly their issues, you know, and then establish trust through confidentiality. Because what matters the most is for people to come and tell you their deepest secret, and the next moment, they hear them out there, you know? If some people should come and tell you stuff, and the next day, they hear them out there. This is what people would not want to – and people would not want to identify themselves with such persons who portray such character. And I’m sure that this was one of the attitudes, the principles, which led to people coming to me, or trusting, coming to me with that fear, or trusting my approach, you know?

Christine:          So your impartiality, your ability to let them be understood by each other, and then most importantly, the confidentiality, not going around in the street the next day telling people’s secrets was incredibly important, and people trust that.


Esther:              Yes. And most of the time, all of them who came, you know, I would do that voluntarily. Nobody forced me to do that. And it was also on voluntary basis that they also – they would decide to come. Because if you think you’re putting money over the issue, I will tell you to go. So most of them came at that earlier stage, because it was a kind of selfless initiative. That was the early beginning of that journey, which I never knew was going to mark me in the later years, somehow. And so this is how I found myself doing this. And I love doing it in schools, with the people, young people in the communities, women, who had issues of disagreement with one another, and then the church.

Every couple in the church who had problems will come to me, and so I will be the mediator. I remember instances where I will seek to mediate couples’ issues up till late hours of the night, to the detriment of my health, simply because I wanted them to understand each other, I wanted them to come to compromise, I wanted them to be together. And this I’m happy, because they are living today to give the testimonies, they are living today to see how impactful that which I did has been in their lives, which – in their lives, which made them to commit to one another.

And then it became a community affair, where I was solicited in the communities. I started doing this with no professional skills or knowledge, but I was doing that. And so later on we had partners who came on board, and who started giving us the skills and knowledge. I remember UNDP, with UNWOMEN Cameroon, would give the very basics of that. Then women mediators across the Commonwealth, and Mediators Without Borders came on board to impact this knowledge. And since then, I’ve been mediating, be it couples, groups, friends, communities, and most especially the Anglophone Crisis as well.

Christine:          All of these principles of mediation, impartiality, confidentiality, voluntariness, I mean they’re important in every sphere, but how did you become involved? Tell – maybe tell us about the Anglophone Crisis, what it is, how it started, and your involvement.

Esther:              Yeah, before talking about my involvement in the Anglophone Crisis, there is need to make a connection with the Bakassi Crisis. The Bakassi Crisis is a crisis which we had – which was between Nigeria and Cameroon, which costed so many lives, and pains, and where women were silenced, you know, through threats, intimidation, and they had no voice. So at some point people had to travel one day and half to get to me – I mean the leaders, traditional leaders – to get to me, to say they have heard so much about what I’ve been doing, and they’ve never seen me there. And my office was always going there. And because of the high level of insecurity, we will not go there anyhow. But when they came, it touched me, and I said, my life – all throughout my life I’ve been working, dedicating my life for people, it’s important that I go to these people.

And so I heeded to their call, and I went there, and I saw, and I heard, and it broke the system in me, because I could not imagine that people will live in such pains and suffering, and within the same country where I lived, without anyone giving a listening ear, or attending to the issues, which were happening in that area. The women spoke, the youth spoke, they pleaded, begged me to come to their rescue, and I told them I was not the saviour, because I have no means. But when I went back to my office with my collaborators, we did an analysis of all what we heard and saw which was happening there in terms of human rights abuses, in terms of higher levels of gender-based violence, discrimination, marginalisation. We submitted this to our board, which approved that we should focus in that area.

And so much happened where we did serious mediation work, So many negotiation sessions, which led to the birth of the Bakassi Women for Peace Taskforce, which became a household name in the country some years after the head of state had to receive these women. And they took part, these women who were completely cut off from the national life, they never had an identity, or whatsoever, you know, were integrated into the national events in order to gain citizenship, and a voice. And after that happened, we saw many of them struggling to become something within their communities. And today they are mayors, they are in the senate, they’re entrepreneurs, they are academicians, scholars, as I’ll put it, and they’ve clearly improved in terms of their status as women.

And when some of them sit in events, I am bound to bow before them, because in the face of when you meet a senator, you know, you pay allegiance, you have to give her that respect. These were women who were not so educated then, whom we encouraged to go to school, and they decided to go to school, to some level middle way, and finally they pushed their agenda through. We also drilled them, coached them, on how they could prepare for elections, using clear agenda, and so on. And so when the Anglophone Crisis started, we were mainly focusing on key stakeholders, like the administrative – the highest administrative authorities in the region, talking to them, trying to make them see what will happen if care is not taken, and predicting doom and chaos if care is not taken trying to advise on what possible method or solutions which should be considered.

Then we have not seen the atrocious activities, we didn’t know that things will deteriorate. And when they deteriorated, women became the centre of attraction. Because these women were bearing the brunt of it all, with their children, losing their husbands, children, family members, to the crisis. It is women who were denied access to their farms, knowing that 60 percent of our women live on farm resources, farm products, being denied access to markets because of fear of the guns, and being refused access to the better healthcare services, because of the destruction of the healthcare services, the killing and targeting of health personnel, their children being denied access to education.

So all of these made us to pay special attention to what was happening. And we began with humanitarian support to internally displaced persons. Then when we were going to the communities where we established so many cooperatives, groups, and where women were at the centre of those cooperative groups, and at the centre of all our activities, and when we discovered that there was total destabilisation of these communities, we could not find our beneficiaries. 

People have fled to other towns, we tried doing mapping and contact tracing, and through the contact tracing we discovered some hubs which were IDP hubs, and we found some of our beneficiaries there. We went beyond our region to get to know, and that’s how we started getting to know that our beneficiaries had fled as far as many – in many other regions. This was not something to take lightly, and then we said how do we do this? We had to analyse critically in order to see what to do. We see before it was Nigeria versus Cameroon, so we could impact as Reach Out Cameroon. We could do it alone as an organisation. 

Now it something which concerns Cameroonians versus Cameroonians. Even though we are talking about separation, there was not call for separation before, because we had lived as one country. So it was Cameroonians versus Cameroonians. How do we do it? It dawned on us that we would not be able to carry that mandate as an organisation as we did in Bakassi. That’s why we brought on board other women leaders that we knew. We consulted with five, four, with me making five, who accepted in my region, the southwest region, where we are headquartered.

So we decided, I called them, gave them the vision, came up with a name, which was close to the name which the Bakassi women used, because it was Bakassi women for peace task force. Now that the conflict had ended, I told them that the conflict is in the southwest and in the northwest, so let us just say southwest northwest women’s task force, to emulate what the Bakassi women did. And this we will talk about it when we talk about transformation, when we talk about impact, that was one of it. And so we leared from what we did, and we created that voice space for the anglophone women who had never thought of becoming peace builders because they had never suffered any war. 

They had never been at any warfront, they’ve never seen one, besides the one which we all contributed to supporting our government, which was in the far north. Bakassi had ended, so we had that of the far north, where most Cameroonians were pooling resources together to support government, to support the soldiers at the front lines. But we brought the women together and we said, okay, what do we do? Let us just see how we will carry on. And first we coached them on how to do humanitarian support or response, and this was the first activities we did with the women. And when we wanted to do the second, after analysis we told them that they would be burned out. We do not have salaries, we do not have money. Where are we going to get money to support displaced person all the time? There is a need to move a step further and start doing advocacy. 

So this is how we started doing advocacy and we decided to get into mediation. We started contacting administrative authorities, religious and traditional leaders, as well as tried to find out who the leaders of the Non State Armed (NSAG)groups were. But then we could not – it was so violent, and people were being killed everyday, that we could not get them systematically as we had. Government was in the country, we could see them, we could reach out to them and talk to them. And with them we had to look for means of getting contacts, and that’s how we led the first lamentation campaign which serve as a bridge between the government and the Non State Armed groups. Trying to call for inclusive dialogue from both side, and try to call for a ceasefire, try to call for a reconsideration of positions. 

Christine:          How do you reach people who are so violent or engaged in such a high stakes conflict? How do you reach them?

Esther:              Yeah, one thing we should know is that you have women who always have the soft touch, and women are mothers, they are sisters. And we had to use our women’s approach, mothers’ and sisters’ approach, to get the contacts of these people and to talk to them, trying to communicate to government and to them as the same way in an objective manner without discrimination. Without siding with anyone. So we found the contacts, and we got them. 

When we wanted to carry out the lamentation campaign, the very first activity, we mandated,, we gave responsibility to some women, to contact them and tell them that the women, the mothers, are coming out, and we are coming out because we see our people dying, destruction, going around us, and we cannot bear it, so they should know, and they should take note. And the same way we did with government. 

Christine:          So you came as mothers, as sisters, saying we’ve had enough, people are suffering, people are dying, it’s time for us to step in and sort this out, and you better be ready for us, here we come. 

Esther:              Yes, and please listen to us. And then we talk to one party and then we talk to the other. 

Christine:          And they listened, I mean the let you in, they didn’t – you were talking about people dying, people getting burnt out, just the incredible danger of the situation. What do you think gave you the opportunity to come in without –? 

Esther:              What gave us leverage is the numbers and our ability to navigate from one party to the other. Yeah, from one party to the other without taking any side. I remember very well there was a time when they started beheading women, dehumanising women, killing women in atrocious way. And it made waves all over the country, and nobody will do anything. So I was not around then, so when I came back I look at the situation, and people were marching, protesting in other towns. And I told them no, we have to go where the scene, where it happened. That is where we’ll have the impact. 

And at some point, even when they killed, they were killing schoolchildren, and at some point they kill up to seven, we could no longer take it. But, you know, we would not take side if we wanted to be on good side of both parties. What we did is that we mobilised ourselves. We tried to mobilise 300. Unfortunately  or fortunately for me, that day, after walking to mobilise 300, 4,500 women came out. And 4,500 women came out and that is what caused a turn of events. And we spoke out to all the parties, bringing out the messages and doing – and given our – trying to tell them that we are neither, nor, we are here just to make sure that this stops.

And we remember that the communicator of the NSAG groups, the then communicator of the Non State Armed Group, who was in the US, came out and make a public declaration by video saying that what these women have done has never happened. So they who claim to be leaders, who are doing this, should be careful, because it will never be the same again. They should stop what they are doing, from now moving henceforth. They should take what they fight and what they are doing to the opposite or opposing regions. I don’t know how to put it, I want to put it in a mild way, that they should take it to the francophone regions. They should go and do the killings there, and so on, and they should stop in the anglophone regions. 

And that is how the killing of schoolchildren and women stopped. So yes, and stopped. So in another instance, I had to lead a delegation of two, of three, in the US, to meet with the leaders of the NSAG because people never believed, all the systems and the international organisations, UN systems, international organisations, they never believed that it would be possible. And they thought we were kidding. That we did that. We were there. They came from all the states where they were to answer to the call which I made. And they locked us in the room for four hours. It was a session, four hours 30 minutes session. It was not a kid’s play, a child’s play. 

And we walked them through our analysis, and also we were trying to speak – they also spoke, but before doing that we had already spoken with the government, we met with the government before going to them because we knew that it will never be possible for these two to come together. We had to go to government, we spoke with government, we tried getting the government’s stand on this, and then we also decided to go to them, and so on. And then we came back. 

And by the time, by that time, schools really were at 15 percent operational, but after that they became a little bit flexible. allowed children in some towns going even without uniform, but some students were going with uniforms, and others were going without uniform in some of the remote parts. And then we started monitoring, and we discovered that by then we had 48 percent going to school. And today we are far more above 50 percent going to school. So this is what happened. 

Christine:          So at the end of the day, it sounds like what started – what motivated your movement in the beginning was this idea of humanitarian relief, supporting displaced people, supporting people to be able to attend school, supporting women who were not on their farms and not able to do the work they were doing to subsist and also to make money. And then you sort of stumble into brokering peace, essentially, where nobody thought that was possible, being a shuttle diplomat to these armed rebels. And coming back full circle to let’s get the kids back to school, let’s enfranchise the members of our community who are the least enfranchised. I mean it sounds like full circle, back home, on the ground, reducing the impact of war on the most vulnerable members of society. 

Esther:              Yes, that was it. And I want us to understand that usually people perceive mediation at times as everybody being around a table. But we came to discover that mediation should go beyond that. It’s not just bringing people around the table all the time. There are times when you will not be able to bring other parties to the table, where you should be able to navigate between one party to the other, talk to them, get their interest and their options. And this we did in Bakassi so well that it yielded positive fruits. And this we also tried doing here, even though we are still to see the end of the conflict. 

We have been working in these communities through the development arm for many years before the conflict started. And we had to switch to a humanitarian organisation, and later on to a peace mediation organisation. Because we discovered that you cannot talk humanitarian when you do not link it with peace, or when you do not bring in aspects of negotiations. Yes, you cannot do that. At first it seemed strange for people see me navigating between humanitarian response and peace building activities and then mediating the conflicts at all fronts. And people were saying, oh, that’s too political. 

We were doing that. We had done that before, we succeeded in Bakassi, we were doing that in the course of the anglophone crisis. Mediation comes to reinforce all what we do in humanitarian response, if at all we want to lead the communities afflicted to stabilisation. So this is what Reach Out has been doing. We’ve been doing that as the pioneer organisation, carrying out humanitarian response before other organisations will come on board, because people were afraid. Remember, they were burning cars, killing people randomly and so on. We have been working in those communities for the many years, and the communities knew us and understood us. 

And so there was a way we could navigate in order to go to the communities unnoticed and carry out activities to give them the reassurance and hope they needed to get why things were falling apart. And so we did – is it wash or food distribution. We put in place mobile health clinics, because of the disruption of the health system, which was broken already. And we started doing, besides the health mobile clinics, we started doing the peace, sexual reproductive health clinics, and going to the communities. Putting this together and doing community dialogue together. 

Christine:          You need to know the culture, the context, to really be able to serve and hear it. 

Esther:              Of course. Of course. Knowledge of the local reality is, like the French people say, is something you cannot underestimate. The Frenchman say “incontournable”. It is something you must hold so dear. The culture of the people. If you do not understand their daily local realities, it will be difficult for you to understand the issues. It’s better for you to better facilitate, for a better resolution of the disagreements or conflicts which they live daily. 

Christine:          You’ve worked with Canadians, Esther, and you know them through the UN and other international groups. What do Canadians have to contribute? Or even in the international sphere, how do we go about supporting that work of peace with the humility that we don’t understand in the day-to-day cultural reality on the ground? 

Esther:              Many times most mediators will carry their big suitcases, and get themselves into a context, a particular context, and country, and then they just remain static for what they know about mediation, without being flexible, trying to understand what’s happening in that community in terms of local realities and so on. Attitudes, whatever, The culture, which are very important to understand. They will remain static to the agenda. And this is what falls or stalls most processes at times. We need to go beyond that. 

And a case in point, I keep telling people, is the experience I had in Bakassi. Even though I live in the southwest region, even though Bakassi is in southwest region, they are in the maritime, and they have specific cultures which, if you do not look at carefully, you’ll miss the point in all what is happening. And this is how we were able to succeed to bridge the gap and make them have a U-turn to consider the various options which they put on the table in order to come to a possible agreement with regards to child early forced marriages, where the chiefs were getting the younger children as young as 12 to 14 years old. Some taken even as early as 10 years old. 

So we needed to understand the culture. Another, to convince made them see the need to have a shift from the position of getting girls as young as 10 to 12 years to a desirable result. So if these are not considered, it will be difficult. We know Canadians have mediators, and we know that they follow the conventional way. The usual routine of following up the mediation principles, outlining exactly what everyone knows, but forgetting that trust and culture are essential parts of mediation. If you want to succeed, get into the minds of the people. And for you to get into the minds of the people, why do you get into the minds of the people? 

You get into the minds of the people because you want to understand how they live, how they act daily, how they go about doing their things daily. What are those things that bind them together which make them to do what they are doing? And why they are doing that. So we have very good professionals, mediators and so on, but we are coming from the grassroots, and we can only echo a reflection of what the grassroots is all about. And you know most conflicts usually, we know conflicts differ, they differ from one stage to other, one level to the other, one setting to the other. 

They most usually emanate from grassroots. Look at the anglophone crisis, look at the Bakassi crisis. It was affecting the communities. Look at the anglophone crisis. Who are the people bearing the brunt of it all? Our communities. Not even the people living in the city or in their offices, so we sit in in our offices, and then we bring suitcases trying to superimpose or impose what we think should be, and not what the people want. 

Christine:          Right, right. So we’re coming literally with baggage. 

Esther:              And we should know that though conflicts have commonalities, there are specificities which should be considered. It’s not because it worked in A, in country A, that would definitely work in country B. Why? So the question we should ask ourselves today is why? Why is it not working all round? It’s because there are some elements which have escaped our understanding, and which we do not want to take into consideration when facilitating or mediating. 

Christine:          What, in your opinion, makes for the best mediators? What are the qualities? 

Esther:              Okay. So you want us to talk about the qualities of what makes a good mediator. I know it’s written in books. We say it every day. We are trained to be professional mediators. But in simpler terms, what makes a good mediator is one who is very impartial and who seriously look out for issues of conflicts of interest when carrying out, when facilitating or carrying out this mediation role. It’s one who does it voluntarily. Like giving his self, his body, soul, to that exercise. 

That will make the other people feel comfortable. That will make both parties feel comfortable to always have you around. And one who practices neutrality. It’s very important. And the aspects of confidentiality. One who considers confidentiality as key. And one who is also a good listener, a good listener, and who communicates well to the understanding of both parties to the conflict. And there is one I forgot. And one who is ready to let go. 

Christine:          Say more about that. 

Esther:              I forgot about this last one. One who is ready to let go. Many a time we impose ourselves, we force ourselves into a role which is not ours. And even when the people insist that they don’t want us, they don’t want us, we still impose ourselves. We insist. There is a time when, when you look at people’s faces, even when they don’t speak out, you understand that here I am not wanted. Don’t force it. Let it go. And at some point they will understand and say, but why did he go? Why did he not insist? And they will come looking for you. So you should be able to let go at some point when you see that the atmosphere is not the best. Don’t force it. 

[End of recorded material 01:15:32]